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Budget revision hits bump in N.H.

By Norma Love
Associated Press / October 13, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. - Lawmakers’ efforts to make a state budget revision aimed at reducing welfare spending stalled yesterday after the House sent a bill that would make the fix back to the Senate, which is not planning to meet in session for the rest of this year.

The budget fix, which would save the state $8 million a year, is hung up on House speaker William O’Brien’s insistence on tinkering with the bill.

The law change cuts welfare benefits to people who also get federal Supplemental Security Income Program checks. The SSI program helps low-income disabled adults and children, as well as low-income residents 65 and older who are not disabled.

O’Brien insisted on an amendment dealing with marital masters, who preside over family law and divorce cases, which sent the bill back to the Senate instead of to Governor John Lynch for his signature. The House passed the amended bill 237-126; the Senate has no plans to return to Concord until January.

Lynch, O’Brien, and Senate President Peter Bragdon all agree that the budget fix needs to be made. Lynch and lawmakers counted on the $8 million in savings but did not change a law needed to achieve them when they wrote the budget for the two fiscal years that began June 30.

So far the delay has cost the state $2 million, and waiting until January for the Senate to act would cost another $2 million.

The Senate passed the bill to change the law on Sept. 7.

Bragdon wrote the House a letter Sept. 28 urging its members to fix the error without adding an amendment so Lynch could sign it. Bragdon said the delay to January would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Because the Legislature is part time and many senators have other jobs, Bragdon wrote, “it was extremely difficult to find a date this fall when all the senators were available to come to Concord in order to pass’’ the budget fix bill.

Bragdon said the senators take “seriously the idea of a part-time citizen Legislature. We believe people should be able to serve and also work or run a business. We certainly don’t expect legislators to be in Concord all year long.’’

O’Brien’s amendment is intended to end the marital master system by barring renewal or extension of contracts.

A new circuit court system would handle family law and divorce cases, and the Judicial Branch would like to phase out marital masters as their terms expire by converting them into judges. During development of the budget, two marital masters’ contracts were renewed, angering House Republican leaders.

House Republican leader D.J. Bettencourt of Salem argued the judicial branch did not honor an agreement with the House last winter to stop renewing marital master contracts and the law needed to be strengthened to make the program’s end clear.

Bettencourt said representatives also have busy lives, but more than 300 showed up yesterday to act on bills.

Bragdon stuck by his decision not to call the Senate back after the House’s vote and said it was “unfortunate the speaker has chosen such a confrontational position.’’